"Most parents would rather have their daughters become prostitutes than work in an Ebola burial team."

Published: 27 July 2015 10:30 CET

Before the outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in Sierra Leone, it was a taboo in most parts of the country for young people, especially those of child bearing age, to witness the washing and preparation of corpses for burial. In line with tradition, women prepared female corpses for burial and men would prepare male bodies. However, as the death toll from Ebola escalated and the majority of burial teams were composed of only men, such a provision could not be made for women.

Seeking to preserve the dignity of their deceased loved ones, some families objected to the all-male teams attending to a female corpse. Or, burial teams would arrive in a community to find that the deceased had already been washed and dressed. Such interaction with a potentially contagious body will have resulted in new chains of transmission. To counter this, the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society specifically recruited women to join its Safe and Dignified Burial teams. There are now more than 30 female volunteers embedded into these teams across the country.

Despite their heroic contributions, these courageous women, along with their male counterparts, have frequently been ostracized and stigmatized by their communities, and even loved ones.

Mariama Manneh shares her experiences and talks about what motivates her to overcome these social challenges.

Mariama Manneh, 28,  is a Safe and Dignified Burial team leader in Port Loko District, not far from the capital of Freetown.

“I was the only female member of the Red Cross Safe and Dignified Burial team when I was recruited in Port Loko District. I have lost all my friends since I took up this job. The only source of support I have now is my programme administrator and other team members who provide words of comfort for me in times when I am down.

“I find it very difficult to serve, as the district I cover is very large, and it is a hot spot at the moment. As the only woman in the district I have to go the extra mile just to ensure that we provide safe and dignified burials, especially for women. It is hard to believe that our people in Port Loko are not listening to medical advice, hence the virus is spreading. In just a week we buried over 61 corpses. One could only imagine how many of those I had to prepare for burial who were women and girls. Out of the 61 bodies, 50 were women. I want to thank God for my colleagues who helped me recover when I fainted one day during work. I saw 12 female corpses all lying still at the morgue waiting for burial; almost all of them were naked. It was not only a shameful sight but it was also very disturbing.

“I would like to thank the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society for giving women the opportunity to help restore the dignity of our fellow women folk who have fallen to the Ebola virus, or died within this period. In Port Loko, where I reside, most parents would rather have their daughters become prostitutes than work in a burial team. I thank God for having spared my life and the courage he gives me every day. I will do this job with caution to restore the pride of women and break the chain of transmission.”